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Active@Undelete helps recover corrupted data from USB key drives

People these days are carrying around a lot of data, thanks to those tiny USB key drives. With the ability to store hundreds of megabytes'or even gigabytes'of information in the palm of one's hand, USB key drives are the new, better floppy disk.

But like the floppy disk, key drives aren't perfect. Forget about potential security issues for a moment. As more people adopt key drives and prices decline, users who would normally know better tend to overlook the fact that key drives are vulnerable to data loss. They trust that because key drives use flash memory and have no moving parts, the data stored on them can't be corrupted.

For the most part this is true, except during the read/write process. The fact is it's woefully easy to corrupt today's key drives, and that is the technology's Achilles' heel.

When you think about it, this is no secret. The 8M memory card for my PlayStation 2 is essentially the same technology as the 512M key drive I use for work. But the PlayStation puts a huge warning on the screen when it saves or loads a game saying, 'Do not remove memory card or switch off the power during this process.'

A friend who works in a local school district was given a nice Memorex 256M key drive for transferring files between home and work.

Prices are low enough, and teachers do so much of their work at home these days, that it makes sense to provide them with this technology. But when they were handed their drives, they were told they could put all their work on them and not worry about anything from then on. So she and most other teachers started putting files on their key drives'even working directly off them like they were hard drives'without making backups. Talk about a recipe for trouble. Too bad more teachers don't play computer games or they might have known the danger.

Predictably, my friend called me in hysterics one night, saying she had lost all the data she'd worked on that weekend.

When I looked at the key drive on my system it seemed to be blank, although she assured me there had been data on it.

I tried using a standard recovery program but found it didn't work with portable media. So I called around to different companies, asking if their products supported key drive file recovery. After several 'no' answers and one erroneous 'you don't need to recover files from a key drive because the information can't be erased,' I found a company that specialized in this problem.

Easy to use, but not perfect

Active@Undelete 5.1 is a program specifically designed to help recover lost or corrupted files held on key drives. It will also work with other types of drives.

The program installed quickly following an under-10M download. After you register and pay $39.95 for the full version of the program, the software will offer to scan all drives connected to the computer. It then tries to scan the floppy drive, the hard disks and all the possible data ports leading into the system. I made sure the broken USB drive was inserted during this process.

You can run a quick scan which looks for surface files, or a deep scan that can find items deleted a long time ago. The deep scan supposedly takes longer, but with a USB 2.0 device the difference was hardly noticeable and took less than 10 seconds in either case.

The program has a friendly user interface. You simply click on the drive that contains your missing files from a list of drives running down a column on the right of the screen. Then you will see all the files that the drive can detect in the main center window. Below that, at the bottom of the screen, is a running log file that records everything you do and each file you look at while using the program.

The file information panel in the main window tells you when the file in question was last modified or deleted. It also tells you the general status of the file and gives you some idea about whether or not it can be recovered.

There is even a preview window. If you click on the preview button, certain files such as Word or Excel files will open in a new window. It's not a perfect view, but it should give you enough information in case you can't remember the exact name of the file you want to recover. This way, you can undelete the correct file, not a file you long ago deleted on purpose.

Search and recovery

Active@Undelete was able to detect all the missing files on my friend's key drive. However, it was not able to recover all of them. Of the ones it did recover, about half contained junk text and gobbledygook mixed in with the rest of the file. That was better than nothing, since the junk could be easily cut or the good text pasted into a new file.

In a more controlled setting, I was able to recover every file that had been hand-deleted. My test was a key drive used in a recent GCN Lab network appliance review to hold screenshots and test files. All the files had been deleted after the review ran, but the program was able to get them all back in good shape.

In short, Active@Undelete does a great job with key drives at recovering files you've purposely deleted and later realize you need. It does a decent job at bringing damaged files back from the dead on a corrupted key drive, but it's not perfect. Still, if you find yourself up the proverbial creek, it at least offers you something like a paddle.

It is much better than nothing at all and worth the reasonable price.

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